Vittles 7.1 - Preserving Food

Silver Darling’s Silver Lining, by Max Jones

Two Christmases ago I had the best smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten. It wasn’t the best smoked salmon in a way I had to think too deeply about, like I had to mentally rank all the times I’d eaten smoked salmon and then think about where they were from. It was the best because it was so utterly different to any smoked fish I’d ever had that it may as well have been something else entirely. The salmon was picked up from Mons Cheesemongers at Borough Market, where my partner was doing some part-time work at the time. Another person who worked there was dealing in salmon and had just come back from where it was made in Ireland, selling sides and half sides for prices that made my eyes water, even with a small staff discount. Max Jones (for it was him) offered us two choices - a side of the real deal, or a compromise at a substantially lower price (I forget why, perhaps it had been frozen from the year before). He explained the compromise would still be excellent, but the expensive stuff was worth it. We went for the real deal. The salmon was from Woodcock Smokery in West Cork, and come Boxing Day I would never complain about the price of salmon ever again.

The salmon that Sally Barnes smokes at Woodcock is extraordinary, not just in taste (which has none of that slightly artificial smokiness that overwhelms the flavour of the salmon) but also in texture. The fat from these wild salmon turns to butter in the mouth and is firm and almost waxy, without any flabbiness. Cut into it and you feel like you’re opening something ancient and slightly sacred, like the seal on a scroll. A few slices are enough to suffice — especially when you work out the cost per mouthful. I’ve had it exactly once each year, and that’s enough to satisfy me and look forward to the next time.

The following newsletter by Max has been in the works for a while and is the first in a new series of articles on Vittles which will focus on great produce and how it is made. Since I first had the salmon I’ve followed Max on his Instagram adventures where he writes lyrically and documents modes of making food that are hyper-localised and under threat of dying out, from Ireland to Italy. In this piece he also questions what a sustainable food system really looks like. Is it one where every cog must be affordable and available all year round? The fish from Woodcock is not affordable to everyone, but you cannot divorce food from where and how it was made and who it was made for. Demand is certainly driven by middle-class foodies down in London but it isn’t really for us, it’s about providing a service within the community that is irreplaceable: preserving the fish that can’t be sold fresh and ensuring the survival of the community until the next season. By buying it occasionally, we can also be a part of that chain — one which, in the words of Dee Woods, is not local but localised. That it also happens to be the best smoked salmon available is just a very happy byproduct, both for our Boxing Day feasts and for the people who truly rely on it.

Silver Darling’s Silver Lining, by Max Jones

As I stood over a sink of salt brine with my puffy red frozen fingers up-turned into JCB talons, repeatedly hauling haddock fillets from their bath onto metal racks, I decided I wanted to put into words what the reality of preserving traditional food production entails. In front of me, a window looked out over the hills of Gortbrack and Skibbereen to the Paps of Anu in distant Kerry through the grey-green haze of a historic St Patrick’s Day, 2020. No pubs open, no parades.

Over the past ten years I have been working with some of the most beautiful examples of preserved food in Europe, from impossibly high alpine cheeses covered in bright orange lichen, to a 5th generation polenta maker who operates her water mill by moving clods of mud to redirect a wild stream, sending small trout hurtling over its wheel. I have unfortunately come across too many cases like these where there is no next generation to uphold the knowledge. So being somebody who learns by doing, I have made it my business to glean as much as I can from the traditional methods employed by these craftspeople and producers of food, where each recipe is the result of surviving within a given geographical context. It is a pre-industrial know-how of working with nature, where each batch is more delicious than the last. 

It’s been over two years now since I began working on the southern coast of Ireland to help maintain the traditional methods of fish preservation through salt and smoke. Woodcock Smokery is, in essence, a one-woman operation, run by Scottish artisan Sally Barnes. It used to be two, as Sally's daughter was due to take over the business — which is the way tradition is usually preserved. The master trains the apprentice, the knowledge and ethics are preserved within the family, as is the credibility of the product. But owing to the strains placed on the wild Atlantic salmon fishery (dwindling numbers, the decline of the stocks at sea, agri-pollution) and the fact that their integrity prevented selling out to farmed fish, her daughter understandably went elsewhere, which is why I came. But the salmon story is for another time; today I want to talk to you about the haddock we processed at the beginning of the pandemic. 

During the time I have been here, it has usually proven quite difficult to get hold of “white” fish like haddock, pollock or hake due to the small size of the smokery. This is not for want of their being caught, but rather because when the local boats land the fish, the catch is efficiently sold by the pallet to European markets. The smokery is tiny, operating two kilns that can each hold 50kg of fish at most, so we would place a call to the local monger and hope that they might spare a few fillets for us.

When I returned to Ireland early this year, there was not much fish around; the horrendous storms which lashed the west coast throughout February had prevented the boats from going out. Fish is available only when nature allows. So when the weather finally turned a few weeks ago, they were out in a frenzy, returning with a mighty haul of extremely fresh fish just in time to see the collapse of their French, Italian, Spanish and now-crippled home markets due to COVID-19. 

This now meant a kind of forced return to hyper-locality, and, by the pier, the Union Hall fishmonger’s slab was piled high. The smokery telephone rang often, with offers of well priced fish that needed dealing with, fast. It all got very real for a while, urgency in the air, where we knuckled down for this thing that had to be done, because it was there, now. For a month from mid-March, we hammered through a glut of prime haddock in an effort to support the fishers and also do right by the local community, fish included, by preserving this highly perishable catch with salt and smoke to give it a huge shelf-life and make it tasty as hell. What people forget is that you cannot just go out in a boat and ask the sea for a select quantity of a particular species. You sling the net in, and take advantage when there is abundance, enjoying the life and vibrancy of fresh bounty in the moment until satiated, then preserve and process the rest to mediate the leaner times when you’re not so lucky. 

It’s a strange scene now, going down to the pier on a sunny day, seeing the smaller local boats moored and the nets in seagull-strewn heaps. The collapsed markets have forced them to stay ashore and claim the €350 a week welfare from the Irish government. At the Union Hall docks, while waiting for my final collection of beautiful haddock, a stranger in yellow Guy-Cottens nods with a wink at me. “The big lads, they’re working away in the Porcupine”. I nod back, wishing I knew what he was talking about. A search on vesselfinder.com gave the answer: a clutch of the big trawlers over Porcupine Bank off the west coast of Ireland indicated that the clever but questionable reaction of the “big lads” to the collapsed markets is now to target prawns. The Porcupine is a famous spot for the langoustine, aka “Dublin Bay Prawn”, ironically usually destined for the Italian market. The big boats can stay on the water for weeks on end, and these prawns will be frozen at sea and kept in freezers once landed, released into the market over the next couple of years to negate the Covid Collapse. 

Imagine that! Two years from now you may find yourself walking an Italian seaside village, pistachio ice-cream in hand, eyeing up someone’s plate of prawns that have most probably been dipped in Sodium Metabisulphite to stop them going black, and then frozen down on a boat somewhere in Ireland during the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak. This tactic is clever but questionable because it will only work for a while and will most certainly jeopardise the livelihood of the smaller boats. The price of langoustines is not going to go up again until this batch is gone because they will have to release the frozen ones as they begin to spoil, thus depressing and diluting the market price with an inferior product. This is to the detriment of the small boats that will be catching fresh, live, premium prawns, but will not be able to sell them for what they are truly worth. So now, with the fishers of the smaller boats landlocked down on social welfare and the big boats diverting their attention to prawns, many haddock, pollock and hake are being left alone to reproduce in glorious freedom, down in the big briny. 

The haddock that is required for smoking by Sally Barnes is fished in the first couple of months of the year, which is another element we forget about when buying fish. The actual time of year makes a huge difference. The fish the boats caught from mid-March, which we hurtled through in those first weeks of the outbreak, was just coming into spawning season, and therefore at absolute peak eating, full of nutrients with a supple, firm flesh. As the fish approach reproduction, this quality changes when the energy from the fish’s fat reserves goes into developing milt and eggs, and the flesh becomes watery. This is when Sally will stop taking the fish. I can pretty much guarantee this does not enter the consideration of those factories supplying supermarkets, and I’m pretty sure you’ve never thought about it when buying smoked fish either. I certainly hadn’t.

This is the traditional approach that I am so drawn to in artisans like Sally. Take when there is an abundance, preserve the glut, and leave alone to ensure a good harvest next season. This is possibly the first time these species have had a real break from relentless fishing in the last 50 years. We might just see a mighty haul next year, and a larger average fish size to boot. 

I’ve gleaned many things following my decision to come to Ireland to learn from one of the last masters, but not only to do with fish, salt and smoke. It’s more that now, I am actively experiencing these old methods and mindsets coming into their own; the preservation of food from nature is crucial to life, and the knowledge of how to preserve can have a seismic impact on flavour. As so many businesses around shut up shop and lean on the State, the smokery, attached to Sally’s home with its two small kilns, single member of staff, and small overheads, is well-rigged to navigate this stormy period by battening down the hatches and continuing to work with nature to feed people on its local, peripheral and coastal scale. Observing nature’s patterns, being small enough to sustain a local community, applying a mastered technique where each fish from every small, manageable batch is held and worked in someone’s hands, touched and felt through every step of the process. It is absolutely crucial that this knowledge remains part of our collective memory. 

Sally often tells me, “as long as you’ve a roof above your head, a dry bed to sleep in, clean water, food and enough money for the odd bottle of wine to share with your friends and family, you’re just grand.” Looking out again to the Paps of Anu, I feel sound inside its red and white walls, holding out, strong like a lighthouse. Beneath the dark cloud of the Coronavirus Pandemic, my remote existence here has offered at least some sort of a herring-scale silvery lining. It has allowed me an opportunity to feel the very real importance of what it means to be physically and emotionally involved in the direct process of preserving fish on a small scale, something which has been happening in Ireland for the past ten thousand years. I have finally seen and felt what it means to be part of a truly beneficial and genuinely sustainable food system, something which I have chased for over a decade, sliding into a role of engagement with what nature gives for direct sustenance of myself and those around me. This is something I will take with me in life, as I strive to learn from and celebrate those artisans who through processes of the past, silently hold the key to the future of food.

Max Jones is a traditional food archivist who devotes his time to upholding imperiled food heritage. For more info on future projects and how to participate in helping safeguard traditions in food, follow @uptherethelast www.uptherethelast.com . Max donated his fee for his article to the Union Hall Lifeboat Station . All photos credited to Max Jones.

To offset the pressure on Sally Barnes due to the decline in Wild Atlantic Salmon stocks, Woodcock Smokery now has a space to host a series of courses where the benefits are twofold - to keep the smokery running and also make Sally’s vast knowledge available to anybody who wants to learn the techniques of a lifetime working with fish and fire. To learn more, and to order fish, visit www.woodcocksmokery.com